The Anti-inflammatory diet aims to cut out foods that cause inflammation, which can lead to chronic disease.
Foods to avoid in this diet include refined carbs, gluten and processed foods.
Harvard medical school graduate Dr. Andrew Weil has developed a detailed program based on the idea that certain foods can contribute to developing chronic inflammation. Processed foods top the list of trouble-makers.
The well-known Zone diet created by Dr. Barry Sears is similar to Dr. Weil’s approach, and other versions of the Anti-Inflammatory diet are circulating, so the particulars will vary depending on the source.
Commonalities include a focus on whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
Reducing the amount of saturated fat in the diet is also recommended, so foods from animal sources are limited.
The Nature of Inflammation
There are two kinds of inflammation: acute and chronic. An abscess or rash, as well as a stubbed toe or cut on the finger, are examples of acute inflammation, which is painful.
Acute inflammation happens over a period of minutes, hours and days. (3) As the wound or injury heals, the inflammation fades away.
Chronic inflammation happens over months and years. It isn’t obvious like an external wound and doesn’t necessarily hurt, but the presence of internal inflammation indicates the body has mobilized defenses to repair injury on a cellular level. (4)
Inflammatory responses are part of the body’s immune system, and are normal and essential for ongoing maintenance and repair. Acute inflammation regulates itself by decreasing over time. Chronic inflammation is unregulated, and can contribute to the progression and perpetuation of disease. (5)
A regulated inflammatory response performs vital functions for healing, like clearing out dead or damaged cells, delivering necessary resources to return the tissues to a normal state, fighting infection, and dealing with foreign substances that don’t belong in the body.
An unregulated response can actually become the source of damage over time. If a food that causes an inflammatory response is a regular part of your diet, it sets you up for chronic inflammation.
Arthritis may be one of the most well-known inflammatory diseases. Upwards of 50 million American adults suffered from arthritis in 2012. (6)
The Arthritis Foundation recommends avoiding these inflammatory foods: (7)
- Sugar, including all foods with added sugar. Many processed foods contain sugar, even foods you don’t think of as sweet, like canned tomato sauce
- Refined carbohydrates, like bread made with white flour, and most baked goods
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer that’s a common ingredient in Asian dishes and other processed foods
- Gluten, which is the protein found in wheat and other grains
- Casein, the protein in dairy products
- Aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener used in some sugar-free drinks, as well as other low-calorie foods
- Trans fats commonly used in processed foods
- Excess omega-6 fatty acids from vegetable oils
- Alcohol taken in excess can weaken liver function and disrupt interaction between organs, contributing to inflammation
When you read over this list, it’s easy to see how inflammation can become chronic. Arthritis is only one of many serious health conditions that can develop in the presence of chronic inflammation, including some cancers, coronary heart disease, asthma, Crohn’s disease, peptic ulcers, and sinusitis. (8)
The Good List
The Anti-Inflammatory diet sings the praises of fruits and vegetables, along with dietary choices rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like cold water fish and walnuts.
Dr. Weil created an illustrative food pyramid that does a good job of showing how the diet stacks up. (9) Here are the basics:
- Vegetable servings should be a minimum of 4 – 5 each day
- Fruit servings are a little lower at 3 – 4 daily
- Beans and legumes can be eaten once or twice a day
- Whole grains are generous at 3 – 5 servings each day
- Fats, including nuts, extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil, should be kept between 5 and 7 servings
- Fish like sardines, wild Alaskan salmon and black cod are recommended at 2 – 6 servings weekly
- Soy foods like tofu, tempeh and soy milk are allowable 1 – 2 times daily
- All the cooked Asian mushrooms you can eat
- Proteins like lean meats, eggs and quality cheeses are limited at once or twice a week
- Healthy spices and herbs like turmeric, garlic, cinnamon and ginger can be used freely
- Green, white or oolong tea is recommended at 2 – 4 cups daily
- Red wine, but only a glass or two a day
- Dark chocolate is allowed “sparingly”
Following this plan could bump up your grocery costs, and you can expect to spend a respectable amount of time in the kitchen. But cutting back or eliminating diet-related sources of inflammation may be worth the extra money and effort.
The American Heart Association states that while inflammation has not been proven to cause cardiovascular disease, the condition is common among stroke and heart disease patients. (10)
Since the 1950s, studies have suggested that chronic inflammation may contribute to a higher risk of obesity as well as the potential for developing type 2 diabetes. (11)
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a general term encompassing abnormal immune responses in the gastrointestinal tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis may be the two most well-known of this type of disorder. (12)
Recent studies have shown promise in using dietary therapy for treating and controlling IBD, including the use of elimination diets (removing dietary components and then systematically reintroducing them) in order to identify problematic foods. The association of various foods with IBD is still in the exploratory stages, but nutritional therapy is the first line of defense in Japan, and often puts IBD patients into remission. (13)
Recognized as a significant burden to the healthcare system, chronic inflammation is also known as a contributing factor to health issues like hypertension (high blood pressure), metabolic syndrome, and high cholesterol. (14)
The increasing toxicity of our environment is another source of exposure to substances that can cause inflammatory responses. While we may not always have a great measure of control over these factors, each of us is in control of what we put into our bodies, and the Anti-inflammatory diet is a good place to start.